Diana Rigg has always played formidable women, from her leather-clad stint in 'The Avengers' through intense performances in 'Medea' and 'Phèdre' to her latest role as an abandoned wife. Jasper Rees meets the daunting dame
Honour, which is about to open in the West End, portrays a marriage sundered when a husband leaves wife and daughter for another woman. Before she accepted the role of the abandoned wife in Joanna Murray-Smith's play, Diana Rigg rang Eileen Atkins, who played the part at the National Theatre three years ago.
'I don't mind sounding like a cantankerous old bag'
"I said, 'There is one minor impediment as far as I'm concerned, in that I've been there, many years ago. My husband left me, but it's always dragged into interviews like a terrible ball and chain 15 years after the event. People are going to think, why is she doing this?' Eileen said, 'How often does a part of this kind crop up for women of our age?' That clinched it.'"
There. Rigg's the one who dragged in the ball and chain. So can she categorically deny that playing a woman scorned might be a paid form of therapy? "Oh, please!"
There's nothing quite like a put-down from Dame Diana. It's a cliché to describe actresses of her vintage - she is 67 - as formidable. But there really is nothing tempered about Rigg, nothing remotely withheld.
"Am I being a cantankerous old bag?" she wonders over a bowl of soup in a Kensington café, which has her custom twice a day. No, just saying it like it is. "I don't mind sounding like a cantankerous old bag, mind you."
She certainly doesn't mind playing them. In the past 10 years she has delivered a series of splendid matriarchs in Suddenly Last Summer, Humble Boy, Britannicus, Medea and Phèdre.
As Kathleen Turner begins her London run as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it's as well to recall Rigg's terrifying turn as the greatest harpy of them all. Her sixties have been "incredible, probably because I expected nothing of them and everything was a wonderful surprise".
Hollywood has even made a rare call. Last summer she was in Beijing for the remake of Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil, starring Naomi Watts. Her role? "A mother superior," she says. "Easy peasy."
Rigg doesn't play shrinking violets or wilting lilies. These days she plays superior mothers. "I think the broad strokes were out when I was created," she muses.
As Emma Peel in the Avengers
She refers more than once to her size, though she is not remotely the big-boned hulk this implies. (The big bones are, for ever and always, her cheekbones.) It's just very hard to imagine her being cute or vulnerable.
Audiences should expect her spurned wife to be more robust than Atkins's. Males in the audience will dive for cover when her character fights back at her husband, a senior literary journalist who falls for his sexy young interviewer.
"I think there's quite a deal of irony in her reaction to her husband's excuses - those awful excuses that men come out with when they are having a major hormonal upheaval on account of a girl."
The young Rigg would have been perfect as the vamp-in-a-hurry (played by Natasha McElhone) who filches her husband in Honour. And yet she doesn't think she started out ballsy. It's more that, after Rada, rep and the RSC, she had ballsiness thrust upon her.
"I asked a mate of mine the other day. I said, 'Was I ambitious when I was young? I really can't remember.' He said, 'No, you were always grateful.' I got tougher after The Avengers."
In 1965 she had a well publicised pay dispute with the producers, which made the papers at a time when young actresses didn't ask for "more please, sir".
She's not sentimental about those years in leather. "You were just marching on the spot."
When did she last see Emma Peel in action? "Oh. Mists of time."
As for being a Bond girl, did she get the wrong 007 in George Lazenby? "I certainly did."
But Rigg was always more than a sex kitten in a catsuit. She was, for example, the first associate artist of the RSC to join Olivier's National. But, in the early '70s there was no avoiding the pin-up tag altogether. As the original Dottie in Jumpers, she donned very little and, famously, nothing at all during a brief scene in Abelard and Heloise.
Rigg's performance in Phedre was masterful and pitliess
It even followed her into the rehearsal room. For a run-through of Macbeth at the Old Vic she was, she thought, chastely garbed in T-shirt and jeans. Sir, as many actors of that generation still refer to Sir Laurence, approached her afterwards. "He said, 'You weren't wearing a brassière during that run-through, were you, darling?' And I went, 'No.' And he went, 'Very disturbing.'" Her mimicry of his vowels and rolling eyeballs is spot on.
That was 35 years ago. Nowadays, the epithet most frequently attached to Rigg as an actress is "veteran".
"God, it makes me laugh. You know the credits to Dad's Army? I always have an image in my head of stumbling along in a tin hat behind all those darling old men."
There are a lot of veteran actresses around these days, several of them dames. "I know," she says. "We're very common. Very very thick on the ground we are now."
One Sunday night last year there was a gala gathering to raise money for tsunami victims. The show closed with a specially composed rap, entitled We Are the Dames, delivered by Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins and Rigg. (Maggie Smith sent her apologies.)
"The last line of it we all turned to the audience and in unison said, 'And we're the muther****in' DBEs.' Brought the house down."
It may have got a laugh, but with Dame Diana, of course, it's not quite accurate. As the latest role in the remarkable autumn of her career will reiterate, no one ****s with this muther.
The Avengers (1965-7) The role she'll never escape from. Super-spy Emma Peel quipped and kicked her way to stardom in the '60s, paving the way for Rigg to become the only Bond girl to drag 007 to the altar in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Macbeth (1972) Having won plaudits - and publicity - by appearing naked on stage in the previous year's Abelard and Heloise, Rigg headed to the National Theatre to play Lady Macbeth, only to be abandoned by her Macbeth, Anthony Hopkins, after the pressure of poor reviews became too much for him.
Mother Love (1989) After semi-retirement in the '80s, Rigg returned to win a Bafta for this TV mini-series about a murderous mother-in-law - the first of a series of malevolent matriarchs that reignited her career.
Medea (1992) A low-key, minimum-wage production of this Euripides play at the Almeida became an unstoppable theatrical juggernaut, thanks to the intensity Rigg brought to the title role. A Broadway transfer won her a Tony award in 1994.
Phedre (1998) The only mis-step in this Racine revival in the West End, adapted by Ted Hughes and directed by Medea's Jonathan Kent, was Rigg's alarming ginger wig. Otherwise her portrayal of a queen infatuated with her stepson was masterful, and pitiless.
* 'Honour' opens at Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2 (0870 950 0925), on Feb 14.